Caring for the Community: Caritas Family Solutions
by Dan Cross
If you were asked who administers the largest foster care program in Southern Illinois, the largest adoption program, and the only residential facility for abused and neglected children south of Bloomington, you might guess some state or county governmental agency. And you would be wrong.
The correct answer is Caritas Family Solutions, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing social services to people of all ages and backgrounds across southern Illinois. Besides serving hundreds of children in foster care, Caritas operates an assisted living facility for low-income elderly people, group homes for the developmentally disabled, a comprehensive program designed to help juvenile offenders turn their lives around and stay out of prison, and a counseling center which provides thousands of hours of counseling on a sliding scale for a wide variety of mental health and family issues.
And the truth is, by most measurements, Caritas does a better job, for less money, than government agencies which provide the same services. Part of the reason is the greater flexibility they enjoy as a private agency, the diverse range of their services (which can be combined when necessary to meet a client’s needs), lower payroll costs, greater accountability (their funding is often contingent upon their performance, which is not true of most government services), and a tremendous amount of volunteer help.
Caritas began in 1947 as Catholic Charities, but is now a full-service, non-denominational social service agency, headquartered in Belleville. Their mission is broad: taking care of people’s social and emotional needs across the spectrum of life.
You can see the entire spectrum being served at a couple of the facilities that are run by Caritas. The St John Bosco Children’s Center (Bosco) in west Belleville provides neglected and abused children, ages 6-12, with a safe, supervised place to live, so they can stay in school and learn the crucial emotional and social skills needed for a happy, successful life. The staff includes two art therapists to help these kids, many of whom are understandably struggling with a lot of difficult emotions, channel their feelings in a productive way. Bosco is the only facility of its kind in southern Illinois, another example of Caritas filling an absolutely essential need in our community.
The other end of the spectrum can be seen at the Fox River Assisted Living Apartments near Olney, IL. Caritas also operates a Senior Employment Program which provides employment preparation, job search assistance, and a paid public service assignment for seniors who would like to enter (or re-enter) the workforce.
Another remarkable service Caritas provides to a wide range of people is professional counseling services for anyone in any kind of crisis, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual abuse, grief, divorce, and other life challenges. Counseling is provided on a sliding fee scale so no one need be denied this essential help (though insurance is also accepted for those who have it). Caritas also partners with many local schools to provide on-site counseling services where there would otherwise be none.
Even though Caritas helps so many people in so many ways, many people (including me, before writing this article) have never heard of the organization, and have no ideas these services are available. The reason? Gary R. Huelsmann, Chief Executive Officer for Caritas explains. “Because of the nature of our work, we have to do so much in a confidential manner. That tends to make us a best-kept secret. Now, we need to respect our clients, and not share their stories in inappropriate ways, but we do need for the community to know that we’re here. They need to know that they can come to us for help. And we would like the community to know that if we had more support, if we had more resources, we could do even greater things. We are making a big difference, but there are more differences that need to be made.”
In an effort to help improve upon the services they provide, Caritas recently purchased a large building, formerly a nursing home, and are well underway with renovations that will produce some wonderful new opportunities for our community. A couple wings already under construction will provide a new home for the kids at the St John Bosco Children’s Center. It was inspiring to walk through the construction site with CEO Huelsmann and hear the excitement in his voice as he described what all the framing, wiring, and plumbing work was leading to. “ We had to move walls to widen the hallways to create more shared, community space, and we are planning a lot of landscaping outside to make it more inviting. This is going to be home to these children, so we want it to feel like home.”
The new building is larger than is needed for the children’s center, but Caritas has an exciting plan for the rest of the building: a Non-Profit Collaborative. “So people will have a sort of one-stop shopping for their social service needs,” according to Huelsmann. Any social-service oriented NFP can rent a space of any size, from a small office to an entire wing of the building. Caritas envisions the center to be a collaborative where groups with a variety of missions can work side-by-side and cross-pollinate, which will ultimately improve everyone’s ability to serve people in need.
Unless you live in a bubble, you can see the scale of human service needs in our community. I asked Huelsmann about this. “There is certainly no lack of needs. We are struggling with big budget cuts. There are communities near us that are struggling mightily with poverty. There are a lot of families in crisis, and a lot of people who have suffered different types of trauma or loss.”
At this point, I asked Huelsmann a question that I personally struggle with. Early in my college career, I was a social work major, since I found sociology classes (and human behavior) so interesting. But as soon as I found out about the kind of difficult and depressing situations social workers actually have to deal with, I shied away and eventually changed my major. I have great admiration for humanitarian activists like Jimmy Carter, who never seem to tire of doing good works for less fortunate people. So what I wanted to know was, how do they do it? How do you keep up the good fight against all these difficult problems, when things often seem to just keep getting worse every day? How do you keep from just throwing in the towel and giving up?
Huelsmann seemed to appreciate my question, and considered it thoughtfully. Then he said, “We do see a lot of difficult situations. But we also look at all the progress that happens. And there is a science to it; there are interventions that are proven to have results, to help kids from being depressed, help people without jobs get employed, help foster kids find forever homes. My personal experience is, although we are non-denominational, I was raised Catholic, and the whole concept for me around Catholic social teaching, around the common good, is, what is the meaning of life, but to help others? If you live that faith, that’s a part of it all. That’s part of what your job in life is.”
The folks at Caritas work tirelessly to make our community a better place. We can all be glad for it.
If you are interested in supporting Caritas, or if you work with a non-profit agency that might be interested in leasing space in the Nonprofit Collaborative Center, contact Gary Huelsmann at 618-688-1126, or by email at Gary.Huelsmann@caritasfamily.org.